Astroturfing — writing fake online reviews for companies — has grown rampant these days, making consumers skeptical and legitimate business owners nervous.
Much of that concern could be alleviated locally, however, as a new Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado online review process gains popularity.
Nationally, the BBB launched an online complaint process, which shows all details of the complaint, rather than just noting that a complaint has been filed.
Locally, the BBB of Southern Colorado is one of the first 20 or so bureaus in the country to have an additional section, titled “Consumer Reviews.”
Similar to sites such as Yahoo, Google or Yelp, these reviews can be positive or negative. Unlike on most of these sites, though, these reviews will first be vetted by the local bureau before being posted.
“What separates us from other online review sites is that it’s posted live but delayed for 72 hours,” said Matt Barrett, CEO of the local Better Business Bureau.
During that time, the BBB checks it and asks the company for confirmation that this person has, indeed, done business with it. If there’s a dispute from the business, the person writing the review would need to show a receipt or invoice to prove he or she had been a customer.
The BBB, which has 3,300 members in the region — 2,700 in El Paso County, 350 in Pueblo County and the balance in 23 other counties — conducted a soft launch of the online review option for this area starting on Jan. 1.
Since then, the agency has received about four or five reviews per day. Now, with the system operating smoothly, the organization plans to promote the new service.
Because the BBB verifies the reviews before posting, “it’s a trusted review,” Barrett said, adding that it’s “a way to give compliments back to businesses, and a way to express dissatisfaction with a company in a different venue that’s not as time-intensive” as before.
Also, if the review is negative, the business owner has an opportunity to respond and show how he or she will resolve the issue, much like comments on a blog, except with the delay for authenticity verification.
Any local company can be reviewed, whether it’s a Better Business Bureau member or not.
In addition, the BBB is working with students in the Bachelor of Innovation program at UCCS to develop a mobile application for customer reviews.
“This will help engage more of the 18-to-35 demographic,” Barrett said.
A BBB member since 2007, Bob Webster has owned Centennial Radon Solutions LLC in Colorado Springs for nine years. His business has already received two positive reviews from the new service.
“Being in the service business, we put a lot of emphasis on [good service],” Webster said. “I’ve had customers over the years who have written a letter or email to the BBB, but they’re not [publicly available] for anyone to see. So I’m really excited about this.”
In addition, “I think it will heighten awareness of the BBB that consumers can use it also. As long as the reviews can only be made by actual customers … then there is merit to it,” Webster said.
“This is an opportunity to showcase [good service] and let other people say it,” he added.
Numerous sources say astroturfing can be as prevalent as one in three or one in seven reviews. According to Forbes.com, online reputation management is a $5 billion industry, nationally.
Not all of that business is legitimate, though. In September, the New York Attorney General fined 19 companies $350,000 for using advanced Internet Protocol spoofing techniques to write bogus reviews on sites such as Google Local, Yelp and CitySearch.
Some companies set up fake profiles on Yelp or other sites, employing Internet bots (software that automates fake reviews) to copy and paste a positive or negative fake review for multiple companies on multiple sites.
Another tactic has become more common.
“A lot of times competitors will go to competitors’ sites and leave fake reviews to hurt their competitors,” said Amanda Blough, CEO of InnerSocial Marketing, whose specialties include online advertising and reputation monitoring.
Or businesses have people writing reviews who aren’t customers — family and friends, “so you’re not truly getting a real review of that business,” she said.
“It’s very beneficial to have this [vetting] process in place,” Blough said, recommending that business owners get into the habit of asking customers to leave a BBB review.
“It sounds like this will be great for local businesses,” Blough said.
This poll is not a scientific sampling, but offers a quick view of what readers are thinking.
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